Let us pray:
By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Last week toward the end of the sermon, I ended with this thought: “Every year, Lord, we come to this time of waiting in expectation. We talk about the birth of Christ, and the miracles that unfold with his coming. Let it be our prayer this year that something in us will be born yet again.”
This week, as we remember the Angel’s announcement to Mary so long ago, let us take a deeper look at what this waiting in expectation is all about. I find there is a strange mix of reality that seems to permeate the scriptures this season, especially as I contemplate Mary’s place in the Christmas story. There is a mixture of needing to be present in the moment, honoring the traditions of the past, and looking forward to a future yet to come. Many wisdom cultures have discovered the same task. For us in the Christian tradition it is born out through the weaving of Jewish Chanukah and Christmas. For others it may simply be a path of wisdom to take for all seasons.
I can only imagine for Jewish Mary, the appearance of the angel messenger was one of those moments when all three perspectives converged into one moment full of awe for the present moment, blessing from ancient tradition, and mystery of a future expectation.
I wonder, have any of us felt similarly? Or, have some of us ever felt frightened about something but at the same time overwhelmed with mystery and beauty?
I wonder, is that what it was like for Mary? History has tried to capture that defining moment by looking back and ascribing higher-sounding theological terms upon her: Θεοτόκος, or Mother of God, in Greek, comes to us from the Eastern Orthodox theological tradition. That might, almost, capture it for me. Let’s examine what it might have been like for Mary. Being present in the moment might be the easiest place to begin .
So what did Mary experience in that moment? Beginning in Luke 1:26, the scripture tells us, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
“Do not be afraid.” Just a few verses and six months earlier when the same angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple, Luke’s account tells us, “When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
The writer of Luke records two more instances when an angel has appeared and had to tell people, “Do not be afraid:” to the Shepherds in the field, and to Joseph in a dream. But the interesting thing is, for whatever reason, the scripture does not tell us that Mary was afraid. Was Gabriel just not quite reading her human response correctly? Today’s scripture tells us, Mary “was much perplexed by what sort of greeting this might be” (v. 29). She was able to receive the angel, the angel’s greeting and announcement, and even have enough wits to ask a clarifying question in such a way that Gabriel explained more to her without giving her a consequence of any sort, unlike her relative-in-law Zechariah, who had to be struck mute for the 9 months of his wife’s pregnancy for his question.
Or, perhaps Mary knew the traditions of her upbringing so well, honoring the past that she was able to fully be in the moment and know that the mystery of God’s intervening work in the lives of her people could still happen at any moment. Even, it seems, to her. To me that speaks of an enormous faith! An unquestioning faith, a faith much more like that of a child than of a skeptical grown-up with years of life behind him.
I wonder, have any of us ever felt skeptical or disillusioned? Perhaps some of us have experienced sadness or over the years. But at the same time, maybe some of us can reach back and remember the excitement, the wonder, the faith of childhood’s memory. I would urge us to think on such things, for in the wonder of our moments, amazing things might still happen to us and for us. Perhaps, even, the awakening of something new deep within and God speaks to us once again. A childlike faith. What a gift! As we reflect on it, it might actually make more sense that Mary had that kind of faith.
Even though from our time and culture looking back we would have considered Mary a child; she probably had recently finished her Bat Mitzvah, at 12 or 13 years of age. In her culture at the time, she would have been considered old enough to be adult and given away in marriage. I suspect, however she was still probably closer to a child-like faith than her relative-in-law Zechariah, which to my mind explains her different initial response to the angel Gabriel’s message as well as her ultimate statement of acquiescence: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Just after our text for today, we are told that Mary goes in all haste to see her relative Elizabeth and stays with her three months. Reading between the lines, I suspect Mary was just young enough not to know much about the preparation and birthing process, so the trip to visit her relative in part educated and prepared her for what she would be going through in just 9 short months of waiting.
So begins the third strand of our chord of contemplation. Mary looks to the future, knowing that in time she will go through all the same experiences her relative Elizabeth does, and bring forth her first born son.
I do find it interesting that both Elizabeth and Mary have extra-ordinary experiences of prophecy related to their pregnancies, and as we go on through the next chapter of Luke, we find Zechariah also has a miraculously prophetic moment with the birth of his son and the recovery of his voice. With his naming his son John, as Gabriel asked him to, his voice returns and he bursts into praise, declaiming in the manner of a prophet that his own son would, “go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
He goes on to prophesy about his relative’s son Jesus our Lord as well, saying: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
So, this fourth Sunday of Advent, living in the moment, our waiting continues. Honoring the past and all it has to teach us, we listen to the prophecies of old. Looking to the future fulfillment of what will be, like Mary, we await for the coming of the light of God’s love to be born among us once again.
May all glory be unto God and the Holy Spirit, and unto the One for whom we wait, the One who will be born among us once more. Amen? May it be so.